November 15, 2009
Syracuse area redemption centers promise many happy returns
John Berry / The Post-StandardRoy Wells, of Syracuse, takes careful aim after his first throw went low and to the left of the dart board at Up to 8 Cents Bottle & Can Return Center on Erie Boulevard East in Syracuse. If he hit the bull’s-eye on any of his three attempts, the center would reimburse him 8 cents for each of the 86 cans he redeemed. Wells, who once competed in a dart league and who had previously hit the 8-cent mark at the center, only earned the standard 5 cents per return.
Syracuse, NY -- Dart boards, rebates and an impending avalanche of plastic bottles have uncapped a fierce war for survival in the business of redemption.
The result: a nickel-by-nickel campaign for your bottles and cans.
“Right now, we’re seeing redemption centers open up a quarter-mile away from each other,” said Frank Procopio, owner of Central City Bottle Redemption Center on Chapel Drive in Syracuse. “To me, that’s not a feasible business plan.”
Feasible plans or not, the bottle-deposit establishment suddenly finds itself in the crosshairs of businesses that tout deals or games that can mean more money back for consumers. They are transforming the cheerless chore of lugging returnables — a mundane experience of yeasty aromas, leaking garbage bags and the nonstop crash of aluminum and glass — into a carnival game.
The Up to 8 Cents Bottle & Can Return centers in the Syracuse area use a gimmick as old as the county fair: A dart toss determines the amount each customer receives.
“We don’t wait for the customers to come to us,” said Brian A. Jagodzinski, of Manlius, who with his son, Matthew, recently opened their eighth local center, with plans for up to four more. “We go to the customer.”
At Jagodzinski’s centers, after employees count returnables, the customer gets three tries to hit the 8-cent bull’s eye, or the 7-cent and 6-cent rings. Worst case: They’ll get back their original nickel deposit.
“It’s no different than a basketball player who goes to the foul line with .009 seconds, and if he hits the two free throws, he wins the game,” Jagodzinski said. “It’s the nerve factor. They see it, but they just get nervous.”
It could be a game-changing innovation for an industry where most customers view all centers alike. And the incentives have become contagious: The Plank Road Bottle Return in Cicero has announced a 6-cent deposit promotion through November.
For longtime businesses, which fought for a new handling-fee structure in New York state, what it means is profit margins are collapsing.
“People think you just open a store, hire people, then sit back and count the money,” said Keith Alexander, owner of F-M Returnables, a 15-year fixture in Manlius. “It’s not that easy.”
For years, redemption centers received from distributors slightly more than 7 cents for every bottle, which they rerouted to its source. After returning the nickel deposit to the customer, they banked 2 cents per bottle for labor, space and facilities.
The state’s new handling fee pays 8.5 cents on each bottle and can. Volume also will grow — some estimate 30 to 40 percent — with the state now imposing nickel deposits on bottled water.
“You can think of the bottle-return industry as a commoditized market, where everybody is basically providing the same service,” said E. Scott Lathrop, clinical professor of marketing practice at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management. “You take your bottles back, you get your five cents, and that’s it. What (Jagodzinski’s) done is turn it into a more unique offering. They come in, and they get a little fun.”
John Berry / The Post-Standard
A hand-written sign is posted next to the dart board where sharp-throwing customers can earn a higher bottle-deposit amount at Up to 8 Cents Bottle & Can Return Center, in Syracuse, The sign reads: “Please Wait Until We Are Done Counting To Throw The Darts!!! Thank You!”
Procopio, who’s been in the redemption business 23 years, said his center built its customer base through fast, courteous service. He opposes the gimmicks.
“We’ve been lobbying hard to get this expansion,” he said, of the new bottle bill. “The last thing we can do is just give it away.”
Alexander said established centers do offer one priority.
“Honesty. That’s the biggest part,” he said. “People want to be paid for what they bring you. It’s your reputation.”
Jagodzinski makes no apologies for pushing into new markets.
“Usually, when I open a center, if it’s near a competitor, they’re not happy,” he said. “But I do believe this is America. You can open a business, and if you have a better mousetrap, you can be successful.”